Experimenting on probiotic treatments for a fungal infection or researching ways to combat drug-resistant infections. These aren’t research topics from graduate students. Rather, they’re high school science projects that impressed judges at the Chicago Regional Junior Science and Humanities Symposium.
And 19 of these advanced projects all came from the same high school classroom. An entire science class from Oak Park and River Forest High School — 19 students — made it to the semi-finals. Now, two of them head to the national competition.
“I’m super proud of them, they all work exceptionally hard,” said their teacher, Allison Hennings. They are “doing something in high school that typically takes years, even in graduate school … they have really done things on an exceptionally accelerated pace.”
Hennings said it’s not unusual for one or two students to advance to the regional semi-finals, but an entire class qualifying is unprecedented. She started teaching the Investigative Research Design and Innovation course at OPRF 16 years ago.
Students had to submit a 40-page paper of original research. Semi-finalists were invited to share research posters at Loyola University on February 25. Judges then selected a few students from that group to orally defend their research.
Hennings said this group of students is exceptionally passionate about having their voices and ideas heard.
“The students have learned that they are each respected members of the global scientific community,” she said. “When students realize that their ideas are important and take ownership of their learning, the sky is truly the limit.”
Junior Emily Porrez took first place overall at the regional JSHS for her experiment in which she used the probiotic treatment of a type of bacteria called Lactobacillus acidophilus to treat silkworms that had been infected by the opportunistic Candida albicans, a fungus.
The goal was to determine the effects of the bacteria on the fungus, and she found very promising results.
“I’ve seen a need for this as there are patients with allergies to common treatments or some that just aren’t receptive to the effects.”
Emily hopes to develop her research into a commercially available probiotic treatment. She works as a pharmacy technician at Walgreens and hopes to be a pharmacist one day.
Classmate Nadya Dhillon, a senior, took third place with her project on combating multidrug resistant bacteria that can collect in duodenoscopes, a type of lighted tube used to look inside the body.
Dhillon said these duodenoscopes can be difficult to sterilize. Dhillon created a novel reprocessing procedure by combining two chemicals, copper sulfate and methylene blue, which had to be activated with a red light.
“That synergistic effect is really impactful when it comes to sterilizing these scopes,” she found. “I was very excited to see the results in the experiment, and it was a very interesting process.”
Dhillon is headed to college next year, and is interested in global health. She wants to make medical treatments available in places where there are limited resources.
“I will be on the pre-med track, and I really hope to go into surgery,” she said.
Hennings says it’s great to see two girls take first and third place in a STEM competition when historically women have been underrepresented in the field. Her aim as a teacher is to motivate underrepresented students to get their ideas heard to help work toward solving global problems.
“I honestly can see both of these students continuing to work on addressing global health priorities in the future,” Hennings said. “They are both exceptionally bright, driven, curious and passionate about creating sustainable, affordable, global medical treatments.”
About 8,000 students entered the competition around the country and now 245 will move on to the National Junior Science and Humanities Symposium in Virginia Beach, Virginia starting on April 12. Emily Porrez and Nadya Dhillon will be among five students representing Illinois. Finalists will be competing for scholarships and cash awards.